Dallas — A little over a month ago, I received an email from Sherry Jo Ward about an audition posting for Precious Little, Echo Theatre’s last show of the season. She said, “I’d love to audition but I’m not sure if you’ve heard about my condition and physical capabilities.” She had been recently diagnosed with Stiff Person Syndrome, a rare neurological condition that affects movement. You’re chances of getting this are one in a million. Seriously. About 273 people in our whole country have this right now, and Ward is one of them. Honestly, I was not sure what to say other than, “Yes, please audition.”
She had just finished a successful run at Stage West with International Falls, a play written by her husband and local playwright, Thomas Ward. Both Thomas and Sherry performed in the two-hander together.
I met Ward when I was a graduate student at Baylor, working in the theater’s box office. I always noted her optimism and sense of humor when dealing with patrons, mostly with the numerous Theatre Appreciation students who waited till the last minute to buy tickets or showed up 15 minutes late to the show. She had always been an encouragement and support for all her students. Since then, the Wards moved to Minneapolis and are now back in Dallas. I hadn’t seen Sherry for some time, and had no idea what to expect when I saw her “in her new body,” as she says.
Ward noticed subtle changes in her body while she was still living in Minneapolis: “I was having odd, random muscle pain, headaches, and dizziness and I had a high stress job, so I just attributed it to stress.” The odd quirks in her body continued once Ward moved to Dallas, mostly small clumsy accidents over a period of time. In February, her body changed completely within a matter of hours. “I developed severe tremors and then I just started falling. One day I went out to walk the dog and the lower half of my body crumbled, it just stopped working.” Afterwards, Ward went to a neurologist and received an unexpected idea for the source of her problem. “The neurologist said ‘Oh, it could be Stiff Person Syndrome’ and it sounded so ridiculous, I kind of thought he was making fun of me.”
There’s one definitive test for SPS, a test examining the blood for an antibody that relates to how muscles receive information. Both times Ward took this test, it came back positive. All of this happened roughly a week before rehearsals for International Falls were set to begin.
Important decisions had to be made quickly and Stage West showed great support for Ward, who works in the PR department at Dallas Children's Theater. “They basically said they wanted to do this show, but they only want to do this show with the two of us [Thomas and Sherry]. So, they offered to change the date and produce it whenever we were ready.” After some discussions, the Wards and Stage West decided to still produce it at that time because as Sherry says “we don’t know if this condition will necessarily be better later.”
The production team gave Ward a great safety net, “I was doing the play with Thomas, who was already intimately involved with what was happening to me.” Through the process, Ward was not sure that she would still have a future as an actor. Would this condition be too immobilizing to play a character? Ward believed she would only play characters who are older or slow, believing her condition would put her in typecast boxes.
She read some background on Precious Little, a play by Madeleine George (playwright of The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence, produced a few months ago by Stage West) and the lead character Brodie, she saw many connections to her own life working in academia and actively pursuing a career. “It’s a role I want to play. Brodie is vigorous, driven and ambitious, she goes into things very calculated.” The story revolves around this linguist who is pregnant later in life and is a lesbian. Ward noticed that Brodie created a set plan for her life: “She’s gonna travel abroad, do research, get tenure, and once all of this is in place, she wants a family.” But just like the character, Ward has met some major roadblocks with her own life after plans were finalized. And she is not letting those obstacles define her future.
Lately there has been significant criticism with the practice of hiring actors without disabilities to play characters with a disability or physical conditions (and subsequently winning numerous awards for their believability). But what happens when an actor has a disability and they play a character labeled as “normal?” What effect, if any, does that have on the play? Ward researched the play to see if SPS could overlap or conflict with Brodie, and she found that her body blends in with the character: “Brodie’s a 42-year-old first-time pregnant woman. So a lot of health questions come up. I think she’s someone tenacious enough to push through any potential setbacks.”
Precious Little is the first show for Ward after her diagnosis where a director has chosen her. “[Director] Kelsey Leigh Ervi had seen me in International Falls, seen how the SPS is affecting my mobility and she wasn’t going into it blind. I was just so grateful that she told me to go ahead and audition.” The rehearsal process has been invigorating and affirming to Ward, “I was afraid of getting a couple of days in and thinking that this was a horrible idea, but that hasn’t happened.”
Ward is finding her way with her new body and still expressing herself as an artist and finding support here in DFW as she notes: “René Moreno took me for coffee a few weeks after all this started and assured me that my artistic life doesn’t have to end because of this. I’ll believe anything he tells me.”
» Shelby Allison-Hibbs is the production manager for Precious Little and also writes a monthly teaching artist column for TheaterJones.